Pica and restless legs syndrome (RLS) are associated with iron depletion and deficiency. Pica refers to the compulsive craving for and persistent consumption of non-nutritive substances. Pagophagia, the pathological consumption of ice, is a specific pica strongly associated with iron deficiency. RLS is a neurological movement disorder characterized by uncomfortable sensations in the lower extremities, with a compelling urge to move the extremities to relieve the discomfort. Primary RLS is a central nervous system disorder; however, secondary RLS may be caused or exacerbated by iron deficiency. The purpose of this study was to prospectively assess the prevalence of pica and RLS in blood donors presenting to a hospital-based donor center, to correlate the findings with donor hemoglobin and iron levels, and to study the effects of oral iron replacement on the resolution of symptoms.
During a 39-month period, 1236 blood donors deferred for fingerstick hemoglobin <12.5 g/dL and 400 non-deferred “control” donors underwent health screening and laboratory testing (CBC, ferritin, iron, transferrin). Iron deficiency was defined as a ferritin level below the institutional reference range of 9 mcg/L in females and 18 mcg/L in males. Iron depletion was defined as a ferritin of 9 – 19 mcg/L in females and 18 – 29 mcg/L in males. Pica and RLS were assessed by direct questioning. Deferred donors and iron-deficient control donors were given ferrous sulfate 325 mg daily for 60 days. Reassessments were performed and additional iron tablets dispensed at subsequent visits.
Pica was reported in 11% of donors with iron depletion/deficiency, compared with 4% of iron-replete donors (p<0.0001). The prevalence of pica rose to 21% in females with ferritin <9 mcg/L. Pagophagia (ice pica) was most common and was often of extraordinary intensity, with characteristics of an addiction. Donors with pagophagia given iron reported a marked reduction in the desire to eat ice by day 5–8 of therapy, with disappearance of symptoms by day 10–14. RLS was reported in 16% of subjects with iron depletion/deficiency compared with 11% of iron-replete donors (p=0.012). Iron replacement generally resulted in improvement of RLS symptoms, however, at least 4–6 weeks of iron therapy was necessary. The positive predictive values of pica and RLS in iron deficient/depleted blood donors were 73% and 58%, respectively.
The presence of pica is highly predictive of iron depletion/deficiency in blood donors; however, RLS lacks a strong correlation in this population. Screening questions for pica, in particular pagophagia, may be useful in the ascertainment of iron depletion and deficiency in blood donors and may identify those who would benefit from oral iron therapy.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.